Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1986

Some music critics argue that 1985 was the year new wave died. If that's the case, than 1986 was the funeral; synthesizers were so prominent in the mainstream that the old guard were clearly followers, left to their wits alone in a pool of inorganic sound. If the pop music of the time didn't whet your appetite, '86 was also the year college rock truly flowered; memorable albums by The Smiths, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth preceded and indirectly mentored the '90s alternative scene. This was also a strong year for metal, with several headbanging acts releasing their career- and genre-defining masterworks; it was also the advent of their goofy kid brother "hair metal," as hairspray-and-bourbon acts like Poison and Motley Crue first came to prominence. If that wasn't your jam, free jazz, rap, and roots country all had a strong year as well. In short 1986 was thoroughly eclectic, a bigger cornucopia of sound than most years in the "Greed is good" decade.

1. Graceland, Paul Simon. After the lackluster sales of 1983's underrated Hearts and Bones and a bitter divorce from Carrie Fisher, Rhymin' Simon yearned a fresh start. Finding inspiration in the little-heard mbaqanga music of South Africa, Simon not only got back on the saddle, he delivered an album that brought back old fans and introduced a new generation to his songcraft. Building upon a new lyrical approach first presaged on Bones, Simon's songs range from the satirical "I Know What I Know" to the highly poetic "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." A well-deserved commercial success.
2. Master of Puppets, Metallica. The best, most influential heavy metal band of the '80s earned the accolades of critics and listeners far outside the metal spectrum with their third album. Everything about this disc comes from an epic mindset: longer songs, more thematic unity, and a greater sense of focus. The album is bookended by two of the finest thrash songs ever written ("Battery" and "Damage, Inc."), serving only to sandwich some beefy, juicy metal.
3. The Queen is Dead, The Smiths. Morrissey cemented his status as "the master of mope" on the British indie-rock stalwarts' third effort. If their previous album Meat is Murder was a holding pattern of sorts, than Queen is The Smiths' great leap forward; the backbeat is more pronounced, musical dimensions are explored, and of course the lyrics are just as morose yet introspective as ever. Narrowly avoiding his reputation as a big ol' sap, Morrissey sprinkles his words with wit and intelligence. And they say there is a light that never goes out...
4. Life's Rich Pageant, R.E.M.
5. Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys

6. Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C.
7. Skylarking, XTC
8. King of America, Elvis Costello
9. EVOL, Sonic Youth
10. Guitar Town, Steve Earle. Arguably the most interesting debut of '86 was by a 31-year-old journeyman with a love of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt and a big chip on his shoulder. A veteran sideman, Earle's first album as a leader was a long time coming; when Town was finally released his Nashville-meets-Mellencamp sound was almost perfectly honed.

Honorable Mentions: Crowded House, Crowded House; Black Celebration, Depeche Mode; So, Peter Gabriel; Kool Moe Dee, Kool Moe Dee; Song X, Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny; Brotherhood, New Order.

"Say You, Say Me," Lionel Richie
"Broken Wings," Mr. Mister
"Take My Breath Away," Berlin
"Rock Me Amadeus," Falco
"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna
"Desire (Come and Get It)," Gene Loves Jezebel
"Cattle Prod," Guadalcanal Diary
"The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)," Timbuk 3
"Keep Your Hands to Yourself," Georgia Satellites
"Eric B. is President" (original version), Eric B. & Rahim

1. "Sledgehammer," Peter Gabriel. If you hadn't figured it out in the first 30 seconds of the clip, the title of the song is a euphemism for the male appendage. Regardless, this all-time classic video fuses claymation, pixilation, and stop-motion photography in a non-stop barrage of sexual innuendos.
2. "Walk This Way," RUN-DMC feat. Aerosmith. The parallel lines of rock and rap finally met in '86 when the Hollis-based trio covered a '70s hard-rock treasure and invited Steven Tyler to sing the chorus. Rest assured, this video broke down walls in more ways than one.
3. "Addicted to Love," Robert Palmer. Palmer transformed himself from a middle-of-the-pack British soul singer to full-blown superstar with this sexy, hypnotic clip. I wonder if any of those girls played their own instruments... ;)
4. "Cry," Godley and Creme. Another innovation was begat in late '85/early '86 with the concept of analog cross-fading, which this forgotten '80s nugget demonstrates to the hilt.
5. "You Can Call Me Al" (version 2), Paul Simon. The better-known of the two "Al" videos finds Simon's longtime friend Chevy Chase mugging and goofing around while Paul just minds his business.

Honorable Mentions: "Something About You," Level 42; "Shake You Down," Gregory Abbott.

PS: there is some overlap between this and my 1987 list from last year, so if it's not here, it's probably there.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Poetry in Motian

Did anyone expect the bipartisan "supercommittee" to successfully lay out a budget plan? We already know DC is ridiculously polarized, but this was just the banana on the sundae, and it's clear that voters can't digest this for much longer. That is not to say, however that I personally wanted them to flounder; any sliver of progress would've been appreciated, and the supercommittee failed to accomplish even that. This is a crisis not only on the national level but globally; with Europe facing its own fiscal dilemma, our allies need the United States' investment more than ever. And yet, with the whole world watching no congressman or senator on either side of the fence could put aside their petty differences and compromise.

The problem with the federal budget crisis --and the toxic nature of Washington in general-- is that it cannot be pinpointed to one single person. The average conservative would blame President Obama or former Speaker Pelosi, but the seeds were planted long before either took their respective office. The common liberal would blame former President Bush if only because the economy tanked on his watch, but it's far more complicated than that. For drawing a divide between the left and right I would give a certain amount of credit to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who infamously barred members of his party from associating with Democrats, even on a social level, with censure as punishment. Newt's successor Dennis Hastert didn't so much enforce the backdoor policy so much as let it pour over to both parties, and by the time Nancy Pelosi became speaker the damage was done.

For the economic stalemate, I have grown more exasperated with Grover Norquist with each passing day. If you'll excuse this HuffPo link, Andy Reinbach couldn't have said it better: Norquist has forced, bullied, and otherwise persuaded most of Republicans in Congress to swear they'll never raise taxes, hook, line or sinker. People tend to forget that the ongoing fiscal situation was brought upon by the defaults and bankruptcies of several major banks as well as irresponsible federal spending. Taxation was, if anything, a distant third in the blame game; lowering taxes is barely feasible at the moment, but eradicating them completely would only send us all further down the sinkhole. Norquist's theories on tax reform, while noble to a degree, are irrational and strident. If you want to cast stones, don't hurl them at the status quo so much as the people behind the status quo.

The 2012 election is less than a year away, and it's already sizing up to be the most important vote of our lifetimes. I would expect a greater purging of incumbents than in 2010; what is up for grabs is which party will suffer more casualties in Congress, and whether that will trickle up to the Oval Office. The Republican takeover last year was intended to clean up the Democrats; however, the GOP's chances in '12 have been hurt by their constant gridlock approach. At the moment I see no heroes, no knights in shining armor; just fools and puppets.

Other notes:

+ With minimal context, here is my seventh annual list of things I am thankful (and not quite as graceous) for:

Thanks: Groupon deals, Sudoku, my sudden turnaround in fantasy football (4-2 after an 0-5 start), the Chicago improv community, my patient roommate, and most importantly my friends and family.

No Thanks: Orly Taitz, "9-9-9," truly experiencing Chicago's infamous "lakefront effect" 2 1/2 miles west of Lake Michigan, the dearth of entry-level job postings online, corrupt college football programs, and forcing to budget myself to absurd extremes.

+ Finally, the jazz nerd in me has to acknowledge this. Earlier today the world lost drummer Paul Motian, the last surviving member of the "classic" Bill Evans Trio lineup of the late '50s/early '60s. Though he was a prolific leader and sideman for over half a century, he is best remembered for his percussion panache alongside Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro. Even more tragic is that he survived those bandmates by a solid three decades; LaFaro was killed in a car accident in 1961, Evans died of natural causes in 1980. Known for his work ethic, he was playing gigs at New York's Village Vanguard up to four weeks before his death. Motian painted colors on the drumset, and today the world feels a little more black and white without his presence.

Next week: the year in music, 1986. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Real Big Fish

Ten things that the new Miami Marlins logo reminds me of:

  • the opening credits to a forgotten "Saved by the Bell" spinoff.
  • a generic postcard that you send to a relative you can barely tolerate.
  • the design on a nightshirt that your grandma would wear... if she wears a nightie.
  • Gloria Estefan's tour bus, circa 1992.
  • the poor man's Red Lobster.
  • Prozac.
  • a new exhibit at Seaworld, just before PETA catches wind and protests outside the park.
  • a suburban white guy trying in vain to impress a Latino co-worker.
  • Jeffrey Loria's hubris (natch).
  • a misguided attempt at filling a void in Miami's heart since the Dolphins and Panthers suck and the Heat won't play again until 2012 at the earliest.
Other notes:

+ My roommate is from outside Pittsburgh --Latrobe, PA to be exact-- and he has three true loves in his life: the Steelers, Penguins, and Penn State football. As you might imagine the ol' roomie had a pretty rough go at it last week, and near as I can tell ESPN and ESPNews are still still banned in our household. All I can say on the matter is hate the school establishment, not the school itself; Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and the school board of trustees all have blood on their hands, but don't blame the players or the students. The riots were an act of denial, not stupidity; those PSU underclassmen were defending a man that betrayed them, and the chaos in State College was purely impulsive. Still, it'll take years for the school and the Nittany Lions football program to recover.

+ Was I the only person that thought Rick Perry would somehow survive his much-YouTubed blunder last week? T-Paw notwithstanding, these candidates are so fueled by their desire to topple President Obama that they can't read any indicator that their campaign is practically over. That now-infamous debate flub, paired with Herman Cain's harassment allegations inadvertantly gave Newt Gingrich a slice of the spotlight, though I still find the ex-Speaker difficult to take seriously. Also, Mitt Romney's growing lead in the polls doesn't surprise me in the faintest, though this could indicate a moderate-right resurgence in the coming months.

+ My link of the week is courtesy of Christine "Electra" Pawlak, former midday DJ at the late, lamented Q101 in Chicago. This wonderful essay provides insight on the death of rock radio from an insider perspective that I can't even touch, and her "no regrets" attitude is both jarring and refreshing.

Next week: my 7th annual "thanks/no thanks" list.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Girl, You'll Be a Woman... Eventually

A few days ago, I read a funny and very thought-provoking article by Mindy Kaling, the actress that plays Kelly on "The Office." It was an excerpt from her new book, and in this particular passage she disperses relationship advice in her familiar sing-song cadence. (Click here for the article.) The intent is satiricial, demonstrating the disparity between what constitutes a man as opposed to a overgrown child, but something about the article left me with a strange taste in my mouth.

Granted, I'm no relationship expert and I'm sorry if this sounds misogynist, but it really comes down to one thing: Girls date boys. Women date men. Kaling writes about the opposite sex as if dating "upward" of your maturity will bring you to their level via some type of osmosis. Regardless of looks, women don't date guys that can't hold down a job or live in their parents' basement, and in turn men seldom seek relationships with trixies that have made the pilgrimage to Bonnaroo six years running. Ultimately, the people you connect with best are usually on the same level of maturity as you are. I'm 27 and often find myself straddling that line, and I suppose I'm looking for a woman who seeks the same thing.

I've been taking improv classes for nearly 2 1/2 years now, and the female performers I have encountered and performed with have run the gamut between "girl" and "woman," and the disparity is not limited to age. The characters they play and the decisions they make onstage are greatly affected --almost to the point of transparency-- by their own personal goals and responsibilities. The 31-year-old married professional works well with the drifting 22-year-old college student, though they don't have much in common off-stage. The kids play kids, the grown-ups play grown-ups. Sometimes being the man or woman means being a complete ass, but it can also symbolize assertion and conduct. My advice relates to life and romance in unison: sometimes maturity is thrown upon but most often you grow into it, and that's nothing to freak out about.

Other TV-related notes:

+ Outside of SNL, I've barely had a chance to watch any new shows so far this season. Heck, I'm still catching up on episodes from last season, which is pathetic. Luckily, my roomie and I have similar tastes in TV shows, and he's been gracefully letting me borrow some of his DVDs. On a side note, I caught about five minutes of "Last Man Standing" last night and I wasn't that impressed.

+ As much as I like "Conan," for some odd reason Big Red and his cohorts have been missing something since they moved from New York to LA. Luckily, they spent a week of shows (that's all?) back in the Big Apple, and this nine-minute clip encompassed what somebody might call "classic Conan," right down to its usage of a beloved recurring character we once thought was lost to the ages.

+ Finally, belated congratulations to my former improv classmate Jason Andre Smith on his walk-on role as "the stupid new guy" in an episode of "Whitney" last month. Smitty moved to LA halfway through the iO program late last year, but I tip my hat for finding a TV gig so quickly.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Random Notes, November 2011

This week seems like a better time than ever to catch up on various stories and tie up some loose ends:

+ Back in July I commented on the slow, painful death of Chicago radio as exemplified by the demise of the market's last modern-rock station. Since then, things have grown worse; as Chicago media gadfly Robert Feder blogged last week, a recent rash of layoffs marked the bloodiest week in local radio history. The mass media behemoth known as ClearChannel was the most egregious executioner, wiping out 11% of the entire company's payroll; nothing was safe from the big purge, from station managers all the way down to production assistants. This past Sunday marked 18 months since the unceremonious end of my last radio gig, and my heart goes out my brothers in the radio industry; it's beyond frustrating to watch a dream die like that, and in some ways I'm still recovering from the rejection.

+ Then in August, I blogged about the woebegone Lake County Fielders, an independent baseball team left for dead by its management and community. Two months after the fact, their painful story finally hit the mainstream media. When the Fielders' management couldn't financially justify air fare anymore, the Northern League was forced to rearrange the remaining schedule of the 2011 season, essentially excluding the boys in Zion. In turn, the Fielders spent a whole month playing home-and-home with a semi-pro club from central Wisconsin. No official word yet on whether the Fielders will live to see a third year, though it's looking quite doubtful.

+ With that said, how was my first week living in Chicago? Well, I arrived at the apartment that I'm subletting around 2:30 last Monday; I was able to carry all my belongings up two flights of stairs by myself in about two hours. (Moving into an apartment that was pre-furnished was very helpful, to say the least.) My roomie works odd hours and travels a lot, so at times it was kinda lonely around the place; however, I had a checklist of friends' shows that I wanted to see but wasn't able to until now.

The personal highlight of my first week was weirdly serendipitous. One of the most popular improv shows in Chicago is TJ & Dave, a two-man, one-hour spectacle of sorts that iO hosts every Wednesday night. (To those of you who might be visiting Chicago anytime soon, this is an excellent way to dip your toe into improv. Plus, tickets are only $5!) The bad news was that TJ wasn't there that night, supposedly because he was shooting a movie in LA. The good news is that he was filled in by Tracy Letts. It's one thing if it were another star of the Chicago comedy scene, but another to see Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts do improv, and quite well might I add. Suffice to say, I was blown away; I shook Letts' hand after the show, but he rushed out of the theater before I could ask for a photo or autograph.

+ Finally, the 7 billionth person in the world was born on Monday, and believe it or not, it wasn't a Duggar...